By Train Through The Continent
IMy vacation was approximately five minutes old when I mad
my first miscalculation. Laying in bed until 5:30 did not give me enough time
to make the earliest train to London. Oh well. There was another at 6:40 if
I missed the 6:20. Knowing what I know now would have—well that doesn’t
matter. Anyway, I decided to make up for lost time by waiting for the bus
instead of walking. I figured any bus coming by must go to the central bus
interchange. After about ½ hour and six buses that breezed by my post,
I decided the bus wasn’t running yet. Consequently, it was time for
a walk. I got the 7:20 to London St. Pancreas (or something like that), arriving
just before 10:00.
It was a nice train station despite the name. However, it was not the train station I needed to go to Paris. I did not know what to do, so I went to Information. The Information man told me to take the Tube to Victoria Station. The Tube proved easy to use. At Victoria, I was assisted by the world’s rudest Information clerk, who told me that I wouldn’t be able to catch a train to Dover for three hours. Twenty minutes later, I was on a train to Dover.
I got to Paris Gare Nord at about 9:15 p.m. My train schedule told me that I had about an hour to get to Paris-Austerlitz station for a direct train to Paris. If I missed that one, I could catch another a half an hour later. My train schedule was mailed to me by my travel agent/librarian in the U.S. It came with my ticket and listed the train time between every major European city. To be more specific, it listed inaccurate train times between every major European city. Not a single train departure time was accurate in any city that I visited during my trip.
But I get ahead of myself. I was still having difficulties figuring out how to purchase a ticket to get on the Metro. The Information man at the station presumably played a funny joke on me (by the way, the French I met really do like Jerry Lewis) by telling me to go to a stop that didn’t exist on a Metro line that was not to be found. On top of that, the machine only took coins, which can’t be got at the Currency Change place. Of course, I can’t really complain because, despite twice taking French in school, the limit of my French is ordering apples, which I occasionally confuse with potatoes. For that matter, I can’t speak German either, even though I lived in Germany for three years.
The time was nearing 10:00, so I had to take a taxi. During the entire taxi trip, I stared at the meter thinking that I would have to tell the driver to stop when the numbers on the readout reached the number of F’s in my pocket. Luckily, I survived the trip with 15F to spare. When I got to Paris-Austerlitz, I found the ticket booth and stood in line. The lady behind me talked to me in broken English, telling me how nice I was and kept touching my waist. I tried to be nice to her, but I moved away so that she wouldn’t steal anything or do any untoward things with my various items and whatnot. Then the ticket lady told me that the next train to Madrid was the next night at 7:30. It was about 10:30 at night, I had 15 francs and there was no hotel nearby. I got the great idea to go to Bordeaux! Bordeaux is kind of near Spain. The train would leave at 23:50, so I could sleep on the train. That solved my biggest problem. So I waited for the train and avoided the many, many strange looking people.
The break gave me a chance to reflect on a recent misunderstanding. About a week back, I went on a date of sorts with a Yorkshire lass, to use a possibly outdated colloquialism. Despite a grandmotherly affection for tea cozies, a belief that a suitable date location is a pizza-by-the-slice joint and some rather appallingly tweezed eyebrows, we remained on speaking terms after the date. During the course of this last week, she’d rung me up several times to tell me that she had an X-mas card to deliver to me. Well, for one reason or another (eyebrows?), I couldn’t meet with her until the last night before this trip.
I’d been evicted from my dorm for the holidays, so a friend of a friend, a French woman who cut a lip-pursing figure, invited me to stay at her flat. Funny thing: when Sarah the Yorkshire lass met Colette the French woman, I felt a little tension on Sarah’s end. Perhaps this was enhanced by my overwhelmingly guilty visage and shaky voice. And I had no reason to feel guilt; with a French fiancée and an Italian boyfriend, Colette had no need of a bumbling American. But you know, guilt doesn’t necessarily follow the facts. Remind me not to commit a felony.
Anyhow, try making it through this conversation, held at the door of Colette’s apartment:
S: “Here’s your Christmas Card.”
J: “Thank you.” After being stared at for a good bit, “Um, I forgot to bring [get] your card.”
S: “Have a nice Christmas.”
J: “Have a good Christmas.”
S: “Aren’t you going to read the card?”
J: “Oh yeah.”
The Card: Under the bland Hallmark inscription, one piece of punctuation and one word: “, Sarah”
Unable to contain my underwhelment, I offer a tinny, “Thanks.”
The interview concluded with another round of “good” and “nice” Christmases and shoulder hugs, followed by clipped waves.
So I get to Bordeaux before 7am and check for the next train to Madrid. My schedule says there is one at 10:00, but that isn’t true as far as I could tell. I asked the guy at the ticket window, but he acted like he’d never heard the word Madrid before. When I showed him the train schedule I had, he pretended like he’d never read the word Madrid before. After about an hour of trying to figure out where the various cities on the tote board were, I found a train going to the Spanish border.
The train trip to Irun on the Spanish side was fairly quiet until a fit chocolat-skinned guy sat near me. I was listening to my Panasonic portable tape player because Sony Walkmans cost too much, when the guy taps my shoulder. He asks me, “Shoee vous aimez je pas bien?” In my perfect French, I respond, “Par-Done.” So he replies, “I like your shoes, what type are they?” So I tell him that they are Converse One-Stars and that his shoes weren’t so bad either. We had a really forced conversation about him studying to be a nurse somewhere in France, and about shoes in general. Then he invited me to visit him in St. Sebastian, where he was going in Spain. About that time, I vaguely remember hearing that complementing someone’s shoes is a pickup line, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve yet to confirm this form of pickup (it probably is true, when combined with a knowing leer), but male or female, despite race, creed, sexual orientation, or political affiliation, I deemed it best apply my strange-dog policy towards strange travelers and try not to pet them. I decided to not go to San Sebastian with him. Inexplicably, though, I did allow him to invite himself to stay with me in Sheffield, in a vague wrong address sort of way. It perhaps would be awkward if he’s particularly diligent. Anyway, I carried on to Irun at the border of Basque country. Luckily, for the sake of my mental health, I did not know as much about the Spanish separatist movements as I do now.
I got to Irun about 9:30 (two things here—sorry for the tense changes and Irun has a ‘-type thing on top of the u). The sole train for Madrid left at 16:30. Seven hours in Irun. Irun reminded me a lot of Tijuana. I don’t want to go back to Irun. The first three or so hours passed easily. The Information guy actually spoke English and was really friendly. I bought bread and cheese. I used my new Swiss Army knife for the first time. And I read a really bad Michael Crichton novel (Sphere—bypass it). A bunch of older guys setting near me with darker complexions than the other people seemed especially nice as they greeted me. A group of about 20 students sat in the middle of the small station and did silly things. And this guy showed up with dreds down his back, looking a little bit like Rob Zombie, the lead singer of White Zombie—if that means nothing to you, imagine what a lead singer of a band named White Zombie would look like.
Well, at about 1 o’clock, the students left and the station was relatively empty. Rob Zombie was going around talking to everybody, making little visits. After a while, he comes over to where I was sitting on the ground and rattles something off in Spanish. I just look at him, so he says, “It’s not safe for us to be in here. See those dark guys over there. They don’t like us. They want to murder you, and me too. See this [pointing to a cross around his neck], they don’t like it. They are Muslim. People get blown up and murdered around here. There’s just two of us and many of them. Not much the security guard or police could do if they want to kill us.” This alarms me: Basques are not Muslims. He convinces me to follow him about 20 feet over to the wall. He starts speaking in Spanish again, basically repeating himself and talking about ignorant Americanos. He tries to persuade me to go outside with him. I decide I’m safer with the “Muslims” (although I now begin to worry). I sit near the ticket window, next to a French guy. I try to read my book again (this time le Peste by Camus: not fun). Rob comes up now and them to bother me or bum cigarettes off the French guy. He can bother people in French as well as English and Spanish. Finally, around 3:00, my buddy gets on a train. Before departing, he tells me that I might see him selling his art in the streets of Madrid.
I was still a bit paranoid, especially when two guys set bags near me and then seemed to leave. I moved to the other side of the station in the off chance that they were limited range bombs. Then the train showed up ½ hour early so I got on and waited there. I sat in a train car with a couple of grandmothers, just in case. As I sat and waited for the train to leave, I analyzed by rationale for sitting in this car. Did I think the separatists/Muslims would look in the car and think, “Oh, ah, better not nab the Yank, there’s grannies here,” or “Forget the American, grab the old women!” Either way, I was golden.
I got to Madrid just before midnight. On the train, I was lucky enough to see Aladdin and a very bad Bette Midler/Sarah Jessica Parker movie. If you ever see a movie about witches with those two in it, just walk away and don’t look back. Aladdin is cute in Spanish as well. All told, it took me approximately 42 hours to get to Madrid. By the way, San Sebastian was a very beautiful city from the train.
I was very tired when I got to Madrid, so I slept until 2 the next afternoon. It was Christmas (X-mas). There wasn’t much need for celebration, as I was staying with a Jewish family and Hanukkah came early this year. I was staying with a very nice family. Well, probably they were a very nice family, but the Mr. and Mrs. were traveling in Mexico, which meant that I couldn’t meet them, but gave me exclusive use of one of the two bathrooms. So I stayed with Raquel—who is my most trustworthy friend in Sheffield—and her sister Vicky (pronounced Bicky). Raquel and I were both born on June 3, which makes us both Sagittarius. Well, actually Gemini. Raquel told me that it wasn’t a good idea to be in a train station in the Basque area and said that her friend had lost an eye in a bomb. Well, actually, she had her eye damaged.
Raquel and Vicky studied all the time, so I wandered around Madrid on my own. People in Spain generally don’t speak English and most of my Spanish comes from Maria and Luis on Sesame Street (does cerrado mean door going out?), so it was quite a challenge. My favorite things were: a) walking around Grand Villa with 2 million other people b) going to Spanish art museums c) going to Toledo [not sure what the people in Ohio were looking at—wishful] d) watching Peruvian bands on the Metro e) watching old men throw big rocks at big sticks f) a bunch of other things. I particularly liked the art museums. Goya, El Greco, and Dali make my feet sore. Spanish food is very good. I mostly ate at “home” with Raquel and Vicky. The food started off very good, because Mother had prepared lots of good food. Once we ran out of that, we had to cook for ourselves. We came up with a number of interesting dishes combining all the strangest Spano-American ingredients. Mayonnaise, Vinegar and Anchovies was the name of Vicky’s cookbook, I believe. I made the worst soup of my career, trying to rescue some fish that Vicky had soused in vinegar. I could not stand it, but luckily Vicky didn’t mind the soup.
Vicky is funny. She would have long discussions with me about many things—mostly about how it is difficult to find a decent, available Jewish boyfriend in Spain. Also, Vicky had a propensity to explain to me things that I already knew. Like when she proceeded to teach me how to use the TV remote after I had been watching TV for two hours—and when I had just begun to watch a movie on the VCR.
I had hoped to be in Perugia, Italy for New Year’s Eve. My friend Tullio had purchased tickets to some big party. Unfortunately, there was a nationwide Rail and Bus strike in Spain the day I was going to leave. Do not confuse this with the strike two weeks earlier, or the airlines strike the next week. I finally left Madrid at midnight on December 30.
I got to Barcelona at 8:00 am or so on the 31st. It was hard to figure out how to get to Italy (or at least to France). After about ½ hour of trying to read various signs, I found a time table that said a train left from a different station at 19:30. I decided to take a train to that other station, so that I could book my ticket. When I reached the other station, I stood in a long line to talk to the Information guy. People in Barcelona speak English. Funny what an Olympics can do. He told me to go back to the other train station and book the train from there. Oh well.
There were no trains to the original train station for quite some time, and I would have had to take two buses to get there, so I decided to walk. I could use the exercise and I would be able to see the city that way. It was a nice walk for the first two hours, but my pack started getting heavy near the end when I kept getting lost. Finally, I found the station, and met two American students who were traveling to France. We decided to go together to Perpignon (pronounced Perp-ig-none sometimes). One of them spoke French, so she said she would help me get info once we got across the border. At about 1 o’clock, I got on a train to Cerbere, which is a very small place. It is not on the map and we didn’t know which side of the border it was on.
After a while, we decided we were in France. Therefore, Alexis (who was studying somewhere in France, but was originally from Montana) could talk to people. We walked around the town looking for food. Cerbere looks a lot like it should be on the CA central coast. It is very beautiful. There were a lot of sights and pretty things. The owner of the market got mad at me for squeezing the avacados. After about 2 hours in Cerbere, we boarded a train to Perpignon.
Perpignon was nice, but sleepy (although not at sleepy as San Rafael). Outside the train station was a 10’ replica of the Statue of Liberty, but with two hands in the air holding torches. It was titled “Ode to the Perpignon Train Station” or something like that. It was by Dali. He had gotten stuck in Perpignon on his way to Paris a number of times and somehow this statue came to mind. We walked around for a long time looking for a place to eat. I had a train to catch at 12:30 a.m. and it was New Year’s Eve. We ate a little bit, but then my two companions, Alexis and I forget her name, decide they were tired. Apparently the custom in Montana is to go to sleep at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, or at least to ditch your more tedious countrymen in favor of fantastic Frenchmen. I passed a very quiet New Year in the Perpignon train station, except for the roving band of rock throwing youths that gave me a start around 11:45. It would have been much more fun if Dali was still around.
My trip from Perpignon to Perugia was easy. I only had to make stops in Ventimignon, Pisa, and Firenze. Monte Carlo was nice from the train; I didn’t have to worry about being banned from casinos for poor attire. I was very happy when I got to Perugia. It took me roughly 44 hours to get there. I went out with my friends Tullio and Lele (short for Emanuaela or Emanuele or something along those lines). The pizza cost $3. It was very good. If was the first of many, many good meals I was to have in Italy.
The first full day in Italy contained a lot of eating. But first, I got up and met Paldo. Paldo has no fat on his frame and he likes to bite your arm when you are not looking. Some guests at Tullio’s house find this bothersome, but really Paldo has a great personality. I went with Tullio, his father and Paldo to their house in the country. It was very nice and beautiful. It was hard to breath, it being so breathtaking and all. When we got home, we had a huge lunch. I didn’t realize that the spaghetti was only the second course, so I was very full before the main dish arrived. Actually, I don’t think there really is a main dish in Italy, because every course is equally good. Paldo stole some food that he shouldn’t have, so they had to beat him with a shoe. Later, they had to beat him for unconventional licking, but that’s a story for another time. Also, Italian people liked the way I twirled my spaghetti and mopped my excess sauce with my bread. They have a special word in Italian for that, but I forgot it.
At about 6:30 or 7:00, the young people meet in a square in the center of town and talk to each other. I asked what all these people were doing. Just talking, I was told. They aren’t waiting for anything? No, just talking. Very convenient, I say. Tullio’s friends were very nice. They enjoyed talking to me, especially two of his friends who didn’t speak much English. One was an actor, and both were Italians, so they would just act out what they wanted to say, and throw in random English words with conviction. They were very convincing.
I met many Italians about my age and every one was nice. I felt very comfortable there. I went to Terni—an industrial city northeast of Rome. Terni and Perugia (by the way, Perugia is in the dead center of Italy, Assisi is nearby) are dreaded football rivals. The most common graffiti in Perugia is Terni=*$&%! (the most popular national graffiti expression is something else, but more on that later).
In Terni, I saw my friends Fabrizio, Natalia, and Raphaelo. We went to see Roman ruins, a lake, a waterfall (highest one in Europe, mind you. Third hightest in the world—created by the Romans [or Latins as they are called ‘round those parts. Romans are people from Rome, ya know]), a town with a really old big bridge (people were jumping off this thing about 500 years before the Bay was ever trestled), and picturesque Terni. Well, actually—as anyone in Perugia could tell you—there isn’t much to see in Terni except friends.
One night in Terni (the only night in Terni) I had the most painful great food experience in my six twenty-fifths of a century. Worse than losing baby teeth in a candied apple. I ate at Fabrizio’s house for lunch. Seeing as how I was eating with an Italian family, I ate a lot of food. I finished eating at 3 p.m. At 7:30, I had dinner at Natalia’s and Raphaelo’s. I was still full from lunch, but it was time to stuff myself denovo.
The h’ors doevres were so good that I had to compliment them profusely. A bit of a caveat emptor if you are going to be complimenting food as a guest in Italy: Expect more. After having my plate piled up by the Mother, Raphaelo told me that I had to say “Basta” if I wanted his mother to lessen up on the dishing out. After complimenting the pasta (I’m drooling on my collar thinking about it), Mother again went to the kitchen and proceeded to pile up pasta on my plate. I forgot the word I was supposed to use and by the time Natalia told me to say Basta, I was up against a mountain of pasta. I finished it off, I think, but the going was slow. Italians eat very fast and, as at every meal, I had to field many questions. So everybody was staring at me.
I had told Raphaelo earlier in the day about the Italian lesson Tullio had given me. Tullio taught me the most important thing to know if you are going to be an Italian graffiti-ist. Mostly, it’s important to write Viva (W) and then whatever anatomy part you like. Raphaelo decided to ask me to tell everyone at the table the Italian words I knew. Fabrizio and I (Fabrizio was full too) laughed and I think I said “barbarino” which means “Nice Hair.” Raphaelo says, “What about the things you learned at the train station?” Natalia decides that it was very, very important to find out what I learned. “Please, Jeff, please tell me what new Italian word you learned.” I would rather have performed a couvades than tell her in that situation. Natalia was like a snapping turtle wrestling with a pitbull over the latest copy of Lockjaw Weekly. “Please, Jeff, why don’t you tell me?” Luckily, Mama brought the main course.
I could barely touch the main dish—turkey, sausages and vegetables, I think. I was not feeling well, I was so full. I did the best I could. When I wasn’t looking, peopled pushed glasses of wine, champagne, and nut liquor (not good for you if you are allergic to nuts, but luckily I’m not allergic to nuts) in front of me. Perhaps I would have been tipsy if I didn’t have so much food in my belly, intestines, esophagus, crop and gizzard.
Finally, we got desert. Natalia had made it, so I had to try it. It was Tiera Mizzou (Missouri spelling), which means “Pick-me-up.” After having seconds of that (“Jeff, you won’t be able to have this anywhere in Italy”), I was still able to avoid puns about picking myself up from off the floor. When we went out that night, Natalia asked me every 5 minutes if I wanted more food.
Tullio talked me into staying in Perugia until the 8th so that I could watch the 49er/Bears game with his friends with whom he had played American Football (he played for three years). I also would be able to go to the Perugia Griffins football/soccer match. We went to a special nightclub to see the Niner game. Undoubtedly, before the information age, you had to say a code word through an eye hole at the back door in order to get in. Instead, we just ambled up to Tullio’s 120 kg friend Marco ( at 2.2 lbs per kg, that’s a big boy). He checked us into the computer and we went in to see the owner’s son, who was also Tullio’s friend.
The place was very classy, apart from the professional women walking around. Well, everyone had their clothes on anyway. Plus, we were really safe due to the number of off-duty police officers there (that’s just speculation, your honor). I’ve been told that the Italian law system seldom has been accused of being overly draconic when it comes to enforcing certain Harmless Law violations. The Niners won 44-15 and the Griffins tied the next day. The equalizer was scored while we were leaving for the train station.
The train trip from Perugia to Augsburg, Germany was either cake or pie—take your pick. Only about 14 hours. Only stopped in Firenze and Muenchen (Monaco de Bevaria if you prefer the Italian name). I shared a train compartment with some huge Aryan fellow who was reading a book in English. It was about making lots of money. His face had a lineament, but I’m not sure exactly what it was. It made me not want to talk to him. He looked a bit evil. He reminded me of Gwangdrok, the great Vandal economist.
When I reached Augsburg, I found a ghost town. The U.S. military base that I had lived around for 3 years was about 20% capacity. The Burger King was closed. I had played/honked/wailed on my clarinet at the grand opening back in ’86. At the time, it was the largest free standing Burger King in the Western World. Oh how times change! I talked to many of my former teachers and answered many questions about what you can do with a history degree. Luckily, most of their kids have worthless degrees as well, so I got out of that easy. Many people wanted to take me out to dinner, but I was only going to be there for a day and a half. Therefore, a Take Jeff To Dinner Syndicate was formed.
Augsburg is very beautiful, but the freezing rain and driving snow proved erosive on my desires to see all the sights. I left Augsburg on the night of the 10th, having done little of what I wanted to do. Dang, I guess I’ll just have to return. I had a lecture on the 12th and the class only meets five times. Of course, my next after that isn’t until the 26th.
I repolarized my compass and set off for Paris. I planned to learn from my mistakes made earlier in the trip and have smooth sailing. I would be the Greybeard of the central European train community and take Paris by storm (technically, this is a bad analogy). Everything went without a glitch and I reached Sheffield in only 22 hours. I even spoke to a guy in German for over a half an hour. Unfortunately, I kept starting sentences that have the main verb at the end (silly quirk of the German language). Partway through, I would realize that I didn’t know what the verb was in German (silly quirk of Jeff Lewis). Oh well, I’d been in Italy for a while, so I was good at making gestures.
Although I have been able to work in plenty of verbose words suggested by Mssr. Erik Sincoff, I have left out the four most important words to show that I am hip and smart (i.e. Post-modern). Therefore, thusly, I must tell you that my Flexi-Pass Rail Ticket proved extremely pragmatic due to its reasonable price and flexible usage. The fact that the U.K. disdains its hegemonic place within the European Train Community by not accepting the Flexi-Pass within its territory was a bit problematic, however. In addition, a paradigmatic shift must take place in the European train system in order for it to be efficient—nations must cooperate and confound borders.
Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004.